By Kate Snyder
Earlier this week, thousands of parents, educators and allies hosted readings of I Am Jazz, a children’s book by transgender teen trailblazer Jazz Jennings, in solidarity with transgender students across the nation.
Jazz is one of youngest publicly documented people to be transgender and has become a national figure for the transgender community. She is now an author, television and YouTube personality, spokesmodel and LGBTQ rights activist.
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Following a year of unprecedented attacks on the rights and dignity of transgender young people—including the Trump Administration’s rescission of protective school guidance for transgender students—the day of readings is particularly timely. NEA EdJustice had the chance to talk with Jazz and her mom Jeanette to get their take on the challenges in this environment and what educators can do:
NEA: Jazz, what message do you want people to take away from the second annual National I Am Jazz School and Community Readings?
When we created this book we aimed it at students who felt different and also their peers.
The message I want people to walk away with is that it is ok to be yourself and be who you are, and it is ok to still be a friend to and love and accept people who are different.
NEA: Over the last few years we have seen a significant increase in the visibility of the transgender community. At the same time we have seen unprecedented attacks at the national, state and local level. What are some things that allies can do to be supportive?
It is so important to have allies. Working together we can change the way society views our community. There are some specific things that allies can do as advocates.
The first thing is acceptance, not just tolerance, but open-minded support. It sounds so basic, but not everyone provides it. It comes down to understanding and sticking up for transgender youth.
Second, you have to understand that everyone’s journey is different. It is so important to listen and hear people out. Let them figure it out.
Third, allies can help advocate for extra support within schools. We need to create safe learning environments where students feel like they can be themselves, not environments where they feel there is a potential for harm.
NEA: Much of the focus when taking about transgender issues focuses on access to bathrooms. What are some of the other important issues in the transgender community that seem to get less air time?
General bullying and discrimination take place every day. You see in the news the number of trans women of color being murdered and it is terrifying. We need to realize and acknowledge that hate is present and people are dying for trying to live their lives authentically.
We also need to understand the challenges transgender youth face when it comes to medical care. Insurance often won’t cover hormone blocking or hormone replacement treatments because they say they aren’t “life and death.” The reality is that if your body starts to undergo puberty for the wrong sex it IS life or death. It is life-threatening and many transgender youth have thoughts of suicide when this happens.
NEA: What advice do you have to educators who have transgender students in their classrooms and schools? How can they best help provide a school environment that is safe, supportive and affirming and help their students thrive?
I Am Jazz talks about what it’s like to be transgender, but really it helps people understand that transgender kids are just like everyone else. We struggle to be accepted and feel comfortable and safe to live our authentic lives.
Transgender kids need to know that the administration and teachers are on their side. For me it was so important to feel comfortable enough to share with my teachers the issues I was facing. It is important to listen and create the space for transgender kids to share what they are going through.
I know the value of having policies in place in the county, district, and classroom that provide transgender students with protection. I would also say enforce good policies and, if they aren’t in place, advocate for them.
NEA: Jazz, while we know of your fierce advocacy on behalf of the transgender community, we also know that you are in high school. What are your personal hopes and dreams for the future?
I have no idea what I want to be when I grow up. I like writing and being creative, but I also like science. I do know that I want to continue sharing my story until society has fully come around, and I want to leave this world in a better state than when I arrived.
NEA: Jeanette, as the mother of a transgender teen, what advice would you give to other parents of transgender youth to help them navigate an ever-changing and sometimes hostile environment?
It’s important to educate yourself. I Am Jazz is just a tip of the iceberg. We wrote it because there really wasn’t any information available when we were going through this struggle, but now there’s so much information. Look for resources.
Also, know the laws in your state, county, and district. If there are good policies protecting trans youth, make sure they are enforced. If those polices are not in place, organize and advocate for passing them.
Parents need to stay strong and protect their kids as much as possible. If you are worried or hurting, don’t let your child see that. You are their rock. You are the one who has to shower your child with unconditional love and defend them with all you have to the outside world.